Tag Archives: morality

Reflections on My Dislocated Shoulder: Two Types of Pain and Their Moral Significance

I recently dislocated my right shoulder and not surprisingly this experience has caused me to reflect on the nature of pain. In this post I will use my own experience coupled with a thought experiment to argue for two distinct types of pain: reflective pain and nonreflective pain. Having spelled out this distinction, I will raise some difficult questions about their respective moral significance.

Reflective Pain

If you are right-handed like myself, a dislocated right shoulder is an example of an injury that occasions reflective pain par excellence.  In essence, reflective pain is pain that interferes with your day-to-day functioning by causing you to consciously reflect on it more than normal. Everything is now harder and more painfully deliberate to do e.g. taking a shower, putting on clothes, hugging my wife, wearing a backpack, opening a beer, etc. The thousands of micro-tasks I typically used my dominant hand for in coordination with my non-dominant left now must be performed awkwardly with my left hand alone in order to minimize pain in my right shoulder. This has halted my daily productivity significantly. For example, as a grad student and denizen of the 21st century, I spend much of my time on a laptop. It’s amazingly slow to type with only your left hand on a QWERTY keyboard. You actually type significantly less than half of normal speed because you have less fingers but you also have to stretch your fingers more to reach across the whole keyboard. This has made day-to-day academic housekeeping and research painfully tedious in a literal sense.

Thus, the salient feature of reflective pain is that you can’t help but reflect on it because throughout the day you are continually reminded of your injury every time you go to do something that you previously would have done without hesitation. Now every motor intention is tentative and the perception of thousands of lost affordances is palpable. Reflective pain intrudes and interferes with your thought processes because you are acutely aware of the bodily powers you have lost and the pain that has replaced them.

What about nonreflective pain?

Nonreflective Pain

Nonreflective pain is quite different from reflective pain. Imagine you are walking across a desert keenly intent on getting to the other side. It’s sweltering hot so you expose your back to the air. In so doing you introspectively notice a pain sensation localized to a patch of skin on your back. You can’t remember how long that pain sensation as been there. The pain isn’t screamingly intense nor does it burn or throb. It’s more like a light tingle or steady buzz. It doesn’t itch and you feel no compulsion to reach behind you and scratch or rub it. In fact, the pain seems to be minimized by simply leaving it alone. The pain is localized such that the movement of your muscles and skin across your skeleton doesn’t exacerbate the pain. In fact the pain doesn’t interfere with your walking at all.

 The pain doesn’t necessarily command your full attention and often when you are absorbed in watching out for rattlesnakes or walking across tough terrain you entirely forget the pain is there. It’s only when you get on flat easy ground again and your mind begins to wander that you can notice the pain, buzzing with the same steadiness as always.

As you walk you begin to use the pain as a source of introspective entertainment. The pain becomes more of an interesting sensation to play with than a genuine nuisance. The pain is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It’s simply there. You can choose to attend to it or not. You can describe the sensation and localize it to a particular patch of skin, but you don’t mind the sensation; it doesn’t bother you. In fact you have grown to like it because it gives you something to reflect on as you walk mindlessly across the desert. What’s interesting about the pain is when you are not reflecting at all but entirely in the flow of walking the pain is not consciously noticed at all. There is seemingly no conscious awareness of the pain as you are absorbed in walking. There is only the ground before you and your movements. But even if you don’t consciously attend to the pain the pain is there nonetheless (presumably). It’s a steady sensation, but it seems then that not all sensations are necessarily conscious. This is what David Rosenthal might call “nonconscious qualia”.  If you didn’t introspect and reflect on the pain sensation, it’s hard to imagine it interfering with your cognitive functioning except at the grossest level of physiological nociception.

The Ethics of Pain

Now that I’ve distinguished these two types of pain, I want to ask a series of rhetorical questions. Do animals have reflective pains or are all their pains nonreflective? If so, which animals have reflective pain? All of them, or only the super-intelligent animals like apes, dolphins, and elephants? What about fish, insects, rats and cats? What is the evolutionary function of reflective pain, if it even has one? Is nonreflective pain just as morally significant as reflective pain? If we knew that a vegetative state patient had nonreflective pain, are clinicians obligated to give them pain medication?

Perhaps these are bad questions because the distinction is a false dichotomy, or conceptually or empirically mistaken. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. But it seems intuitive to me that there is something morally distinctive about the type of pains that cause us suffering and anguish on account of our reflecting on them and not just in virtue of the first-order sensory “painfulness” of them. I don’t mean to suggest that first-order painfulness has no moral significance but it seems to me that it should be weighted differently in a utilitarian calculus.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Quote of the Day – Dewey on Scientific Progress

When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism. But when we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism. In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost.

~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 73

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of science

Quote of the Day – Philosophy’s Barren Monopoly

Philosophy which surrenders its somewhat barren monopoly of dealings with Ultimate and Absolute Reality will find a compensation in enlightening the moral forces which move mankind and in contributing to the aspirations of men to attain to a more ordered and intelligent happiness.

~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 26-27

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy

The Far Reach of Consequentialism and the Deep Time of Morality

A counterintuitive result of consequentialism is that it can “justify” just about any horrible action so long as there is a counterbalancing greater future increase in well-being. For example, consider the monstrous actions Whites took against Native Americans in their “pioneering” conquests. Suppose that 10 million Native American lives have been negatively affected by White culture and the “Manifest Destiny” of Uncle Sam. Now, I can easily imagine a consequentialist story that justifies the destruction of the Native American way of life. All it would require is for an American research group to develop a technology that saved hundreds of billions of lives over the course of the rest of human history. If the Native American’s hadn’t been brutalized in order to make way for European technology, then the the advanced science characteristic of the highest levels of American research might not exist.

This story is neat and tidy for illustrative purposes. A complete consequentialist story would probably weigh many more factors than mere number of lives saved. Assuming we don’t end up destroying ourselves, human history could theoretically continue for billions of years until the universe ends. Consequentialism in principle takes into consideration this unfathomably far-reaching future, and could therefore justify almost anything provided that actions leads to overwhelming good-making in the future.

Many people think this is a good reason to reject consequentialism. To say that it was “good” for Americans to systematically brutalize Native Americans goes against our strongest gut feelings when it comes to fairness and morality. But I think the counterintuitiveness of consequentialism is actually its greatest theoretical strength because it provides a way of looking at the world from the perspective of what we might call the Deep Time of morality. Thinking from Deep Time abstracts from our narrow perspective where we only consider the well-being of people living within a few generations of our own. But don’t those untolds billions in the future deserve that life-saving technology just as much as the Native Americans deserve to be treated fairly? There is a theory of time called Four Dimensionalism that imagines the universe to be a giant space-time bread loaf. The first three dimensions are spatial, and the fourth dimension of time can be imagined by moving a thin slice down the length of the loaf. Four Dimensionalism is the view that the “end” of the loaf (the future) is just as real as the “front” (the past). We happen to live in the middle, but it’s a quirk of biology that we think only the eternal present moment exists.

I fell in love with philosophy for the same reason I love sci-fi: thinking about human society on the scale of Deep Time forces one to challenge the biological biases that makes us “discount” the future in favor of the immediacy of the moment. Learning philosophy could be thought of as the process of learning to ignore these biases or at least becoming aware of them.


Filed under Philosophy

The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.


Filed under Theology